Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Movie Review: Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men *** ½
Directed by:
Xavier Beauvois.
Written by: Xavier Beauvois & Etienne Comar.
Starring: Lambert Wilson (Christian), Michael Lonsdale (Luc), Olivier Rabourdin (Christophe), Philippe Laudenbach (Célestin), Jacques Herlin (Amédée), Loïc Pichon (Jean-Pierre), Xavier Maly (Michel), Jean-Marie Frin (Paul), Abdelhafid Metalsi (Nouredine), Sabrina Ouazani (Rabbia), Abdellah Moundy (Omar), Olivier Perrier (Bruno), Farid Larbi (Ali Fayattia).

There is a calmness in truly religious people that even though I am an atheist, I cannot help but admire. I’m not talking about the people who are fanatical in their beliefs, who feel the need to try export their beliefs on anyone who will listen to them. The monks at the center of Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men qualify as first kind of religious people. They live in a monestary in Algeria, surrounded by poor villagers who are almost exclusively Muslim, but they do not try change minds. Instead, they try to help the poor around them. They want to leave in harmony with man, nature and God - and they do that.

There is a timeless quality to Of Gods and Men, because of the area in which it takes place. For the most part, this film could take place pretty much at anytime in history, because this is an area that modern technology has never reached. But it does take place in the mid-1990s when Algeria was in the midst of a civil war. The war doesn’t really effect the monks or the villagers, who are more interested in living their lives than in political upheaval. But they cannot hide from the war forever, as it comes to them. The Islamic terrorists who are leading the “revolutiuon” show up in town, and demand help and medical attention from the monks - who refuse. They don’t have a lot of medicine, and it is important to help the villagers, not extremists. There is a begrudging respect from the leader of the extremists, who respect the fact that the monks are helping the poor, not exporting their beliefs, and respect the Muslim faith themselves. Sooner or later though, things will come hard at them.

They are told by the Algerian government that they should leave. They cannot protect them, and as foreigners, they will be targets. But the monks refuse to leave. They have been called to serve God in this area, and do not concern themselves with threats. This is not a steadfast belief amongst all the monks - Beauvois’ film shows a few of the monks in a crisis of faith. But this is an honest examination of that crisis. It contrasts the calm, confident faith of the monks, and the extremists of the Muslims. The movie takes pains to not paint all Muslims with the same brush - the villagers, who are also Muslims, complain that the extremists do not understand the Muslim faith, and question whether or not they have ever read the Koran. While I suspect many close minded people will embrace the film as an attack on Muslim terrorists, but I think the specific religions at play in Of Gods and Men is beside the point - this is about the conflict between the truly religious and the fanatics of any religion.

Of Gods and Men is a calm, quiet film. I was reminded of Roberto Rosselini’s The Flowers of St. Francis, which was another calm, quiet film about religious faith. The film starts slowly, and puts us into the world of the monks, into their religious rituals, their daily routines. The performances by the actors playing the monks - particularly the quietly confident Lambert Wilson as their leader and the great Michael Lonsdale as the doctor among the monks, are great. Beauvois takes his time in setting everything up. The film does get a little more action as the film movies along.
Of Gods and Men is a fine film - a meditative film, and one that is relevant to the current cultural and political landscape, both in Europe and North America. It is a film that some people will be frustrated by the slow pace, but it is a film that won me over with its calmness. Few films takes religion as serious as this film - especially true amongst films that are not trying to argue for one religion over another. It is a quietly profound film.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most remarkable films I have ever seen. It is deeply religious, in a respectful and penetrating way. No thoughtful viewer could help but be moved and intellectually challenged by the personal conflicts and devotion of the monks and Abbott. I give it 5 stars.